East Lansing – Before things got out of hand, Moritz Wagner figured it was time to lift a finger.
The sellout crowd inside the Breslin Center was on its feet, working itself into a frenzy, after Michigan State’s freshman star, Jaren Jackson Jr., snuffed successive Michigan possessions with vicious blocked shots and then finished one at the other end of the court for the Spartans with a wicked left-handed dunk.
Michigan State finally had the lead, and over on the visiting bench, you’d have to forgive John Beilein if he was having flashbacks.
“Because we’ve had some really good teams come in here,” he said, shaking his head, “and we were out of the game in the first half.”
Not this time, however. Wagner, the Wolverines’ junior leader, made sure of that Saturday, answering nearly every big moment with one of his own on his way to a career-high 27-point performance in Michigan’s 82-72 win over the fourth-ranked Spartans.
And it was in that early flurry midway the first half that he officially served notice, responding to Jackson’s jabs by working a high ball screen with Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to perfection. He took a pass from Rahkman at the top of the key, and with Nick Ward late to contest, Wagner drained his second 3-pointer of the half. Then as he backpedaled his way down the court, he lifted an index finger to his lips to let the crowd know his team wasn’t going away. Not quietly, anyway.
“It’s awesome when they slap the floor, the crowd goes wild and then you hit one and everybody’s silent again,” Wagner said, grinning as he stood on the court after the game, soaking up the Michigan’s first victory in East Lansing since 2014 and only the third here since 1994. “You obviously sense that as a player, too. … Obviously, if you want to win on the road, especially against such a great team in this rivalry game, you have to answer.”
And when you do?
“It’s kind of cool,” Wagner added. “And it’s a lot of fun.”
'One I'll remember'
The 48 hours leading up to Saturday’s game weren’t exactly a ball of laughs for Wagner, who spent much of that time getting treatment for an ankle injury he aggravated early in practice Thursday. Beilein said he still wasn’t sure Friday if Wagner would even be able to play, let alone play like this.
But Wagner, who’d missed more than two weeks after the initial injury and really hadn’t looked like himself again until this past week, shook off the discomfort – “You’ve just got to get used to it,” he shrugged – as well as some early foul trouble Saturday. And he went out and played easily his best game since that remarkable effort against Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last spring.
“It’s definitely one I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he admitted.
The 6-foot-11 forward scored those 27 points in 27 minutes, adding four rebounds, two blocks and a steal for good measure.
But it wasn’t so much the quantity as it was the quality. There was the three-point play midway through the second half, and another 3-pointer to halt a 6-0 run and reclaim the lead with 8:10 to play – a lead Michigan would never relinquish. There was a Dirk Nowitzki-style turnaround fadeway after that. And there was also a behind-the-back crossover drive that put Michigan up 67-61 and left a flailing Ward flat on his stomach in the lane – all that was missing was the chalk outline.
“Give him credit,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team struggled all game with its ball-screen defense. “He was the difference in the game."
It was a marked difference from the Wagner we’d seen for most of this season, or the player who’d seriously flirted with turning pro after last spring’s impressive finish. But after a sluggish start to the season, and the injury issues this past month, maybe Saturday’s game will be a springboard of sorts.
“We tried our best to be able to handle it,” Beilein said, referring to the pros and cons of a player returning to school like this. “But I think what we saw if he had bad games, he was just trying to do too much. And he wasn’t doing what brought him there. Shot fakes, drive the ball hard. He was loving only the three, his defense was awful. Now I think he understands that that’s not gonna work.”
'He talked it, he walked it'
He also understands this rivalry, though. Wagner revels in it, actually. We saw it last year, when he eagerly embraced the villain’s role against the Spartans, first in a tough loss here and later in the blowout win in Ann Arbor, when Wagner and Ward tangled – the latter drawing a technical foul for tripping – and Izzo officially labeled the young German a “pain in the butt.”
“You guys are from America – this stuff is crazy,” he said Saturday, laughing. “We don’t like them, they don’t like us. And it’s been a rivalry for so long that people don’t even know why it’s a rivalry. It’s just a rivalry. That’s the way you play it.”
And that’s just fine by his coach, who insisted this week he’s “not a hater” when it comes to Izzo or the Spartans. He knows Wagner feeds off that intensity – “That’s the perfect stuff for him,” he said – even if that’s not really his nature.
“He’s the greatest kid in the world, and if Michigan State people knew him, they would agree with us,” Beilein added.
For now, they'll just have to agree to disagree, I suppose, though Izzo acknowledged after the game, “He earned it. He’s Scott Skiles – he talked it, he walked it.”
He did, and in the end, Wagner didn’t feel the need to say much. Instead, when a courtside heckler yelled at him, he responded with a wink and a smile.
“The whole last minute was so much fun because you kind of know you’re going to win, but they’re still talking, which is weird,” Wagner said. “Why would you talk when you lose?”